There are people who say your high school years are the best years of your life," muses actor Samm Levine. "Those people are crazy!" Levine, 17, was brainy enough to graduate a year early from Fort Lee (N.J.) High School, where, like his character Neal, one of three dorky '80s freshmen on NBC's Freaks and Geeks, "I wasn't exactly Mr. Popular," he admits. What a difference playing a nerd makes. "I've never had that many women desperately trying to slip me their phone numbers," he says. While not yet babe magnets themselves, costars John Daley, 14, and Martin Starr, 17, who play Neal's dweebish buddies Sam and Bill, both say they're having a ball being tutored on the show's L.A. set. "This is easier than real high school [in Santa Monica]," says Starr, where "I never really fit in." The only child of a schoolteacher and his actress wife, he started performing at age 6 in commercials (Nestlé, Tropicana).

Daley, also an only child (his dad is an actor, his mom a singer), says he "felt like a geek" growing up in a New York City suburb, but gained confidence touring in the musical Tommy at 9. Levine, the younger of two sons of a dentist and his home-maker wife, was 12 and doing stand-up comedy at friends' bar mitzvahs when one guest, Friends' Lisa Kudrow, said he should try acting. "It really pushed me," he says.

Like its heroes, Freaks tasted rejection last fall in a little-seen Saturday time slot. But, buoyed by critics' raves, NBC has moved the show to Monday. For Levine, it's already payback time. All those girls from high school who were hoping he'd call? He hasn't. "They came around a year too late," he says. "They had their chance."